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Vol. 33, No. 3

Social networking: Not just for youngsters anymore

by Clifton Barnes

Social networking used to mean going to a Jaycees meeting or a bar function, but the Internet has revolutionized the process. To make both personal and professional connections, lawyers (and everyone else) are turning to online social networks, like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn, which are online communities of people who share common interests.

No one knows where the trend will lead, but one thing is certain. Much like the scene in It’s a Wonderful Life where the dance floor opens up into a swimming pool, bar groups are leaping in headfirst or they risk being pushed. “If bar associations want to make sure they connect with younger attorneys, they will be forced to join,” says Kim Kovac, communications coordinator for the Virginia Bar Association.

An ABA survey released in April 2008 validates Kovac’s assessment. Some 56 percent of young lawyers believe social networking online is an important tool. Other studies show an even higher level of participation on social networks.

While younger lawyers, having been raised on the Internet, are more likely to use social networks, more experienced lawyers are using them as well. The Boston Bar Association (BBA) reports that 15 percent of those who network through BBA’s site on Facebook are over 45. Another 17 percent are between 35 and 44, while 48 percent are between 25 and 34.

“Online social media are now mainstream,” says John Sirman, who serves as manager of for the State Bar of Texas (SBOT). “Bar associations will be left out if they don’t get involved.” SBOT launched its social networking site, Texas Bar Circle, in the summer of 2007.

“The power of an online social network is that it allows users to see connections between people,” he adds. “When someone joins an online social network, they create a profile and begin adding friends. Others can see this profile and also each person’s ‘friends list’ or connections.”

More than 15 percent of SBOT members, or nearly 5,500 attorneys, are members of the Texas Bar Circle. Exclusively for bar members, the Texas Bar Circle is meant as a way for them to keep in touch with friends, find lost contacts, meet other attorneys, look for a new job, announce events, and share information about themselves.

Mainstream or just a fad?

Larry Bodine, who owns his own marketing firm, wrote in 2008 that online social networking isn’t catching on with lawyers. He quoted the same ABA survey that showed young lawyers believe social networking is important to demonstrate that 91 percent of respondents spend less than 25 percent of their online time on social networking.

“The masses get the idea,” he writes, “but only the evangelists are using it.”

Maybe not. One sign of growing interest is the fact that individual lawyers are adding their profiles to online social networking sites. From April to June 2008, the number of lawyers who had profiles on LinkedIn swelled from 118,000 to 216,000. And more than 4,000 attorneys and four bar associations have joined LawLink, an online network for lawyers formed in 2007, while another dozen bar groups are in discussions with the site.

SBOT’s Sirman says that social networking is just starting to take off. “Our social network hasn’t exploded in popularity, but my feeling is that more attorneys will soon begin to realize that social networking is a strong complement to in-person networking, and another avenue they need to explore,” he says.

The experience in Virginia has been comparable to SBOT’s. The Virginia Bar Association (VBA), a voluntary bar with 5,300 members, developed a site on Facebook in August 2008, mostly as a way to communicate with law students who are eligible for free VBA membership.

“But I was actually really surprised how many of our regular attorney members were also Facebook members,” Kovac says. “What really surprised us were the number of lawyers from the previous generation who were becoming ‘fans.’ Our board of governors was so encouraged by the reaction that it even convinced a few of them to start their own pages.”

As a smaller voluntary bar, Kovac says, VBA has limited funds for advertising and marketing. “Free publicity on Facebook and LinkedIn is really becoming an asset to nonprofits like ours,” she says. While just venturing into LinkedIn, the VBA has been using Facebook as a tool to promote bar events and newsworthy information. So far, it has taken little staff time. “We really only spend an hour or two a week making sure everything is up to date,” she says.

Learning curve in Boston

The Boston Bar Association (BBA) has been a pioneer in the area of social networking for bar associations. Bonnie Sashin, BBA communications director, says their efforts take up “a lot” of staff time. BBA uses its Facebook site not only as a way to interact with lawyers but also with “fans,” who are members of the public. Set-up time is minimal, but staff spends a good deal of time inviting people to become “fans,” uploading many pictures, and monitoring the site.

“Someone from the public can ‘write on the wall’, so you have to monitor it,” Sashin says. “You can delete things you feel are not appropriate. You definitely can’t just start these things and go to sleep.”

The photo albums she and her assistant load are a hit. “Members love photo albums, so we do a lot of them,” Sashin says. An added benefit, she says, is that the public can see lawyers as regular people having fun while doing good things for the community.

Sashin says she investigated social networking before the bar ventured into it. “I had a lot of concerns, so I did a lot of research,” she says. Then she spent a lot of time ensuring that it would be used.

“One thing I did in building the Boston Bar Association Facebook page was to search Facebook for the names of younger lawyers with reputations for being leaders and for being hip,” she says. “If the lawyer was already on Facebook, I sent a message to the lawyer’s Facebook account, requesting that the lawyer become a ‘fan’ of Boston Bar Association.”

The response was very positive, Sashin says. “I knew that if other lawyers or law students saw that these people were Facebook fans of the Boston bar, they would want to do the same.”

Calling Miss Manners

Now Sashin spends time educating members and colleagues about online social networking. “Lawyers are a traditionally risk-averse population. So the concept of using social networking sites can be scary,” she says. “We have an obligation to help them understand the risks, the benefits, and the rules of the game.”

For instance, she recommends that those who take part in bar social networks also should set up their own personal account to get comfortable with it all. But she warns participants to be careful to not appear to be job hunting because their current employer can view their accounts as well.

Those new to social networking get anxious about etiquette, she says. “I tell people that if you don’t know someone, you should not connect them on LinkedIn or make them a ‘friend’ on Facebook. It’s perfectly all right to ignore a request.”

Sashin also says that it’s important to understand the privacy settings. “For instance, ‘friends’ would see your photos, your favorite movies, your favorite quotes, your relationship status, etc., but a ‘fan’ can’t see any of that.”

Technical experience not necessary

While there is a good bit to learn, you don’t have to be a techie to take part in online social networking. “You need sociability skills, not technological skills,” Sashin says. “You do need to be a relationship-builder.”

Andrea Stimmel, business development director for the New York-based Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle, agrees that the technical aspect of setting up a social network and navigating around one is the easy part.

“If you are having a problem, ask a high school- or college-age person—they know,” Stimmel says.

Last August, Curtis became the first of the top AmLaw200 firms to launch a Facebook page as a law school student recruiting tool. About 95 percent of the firm’s recruits and first-year associates already have Facebook pages of their own.

“Our decision to create a page was born of necessity,” Stimmel says. “We wanted to establish a direct relationship with law school students throughout the country, and we needed to do it quickly as the summer/fall recruiting season was ramping up.”

The firm’s new Web site was not scheduled to be ready until after the students had made their decisions. “Facebook met all of our criteria,” she says.

The firm studied other professionals’ pages and then developed content. The actual creation of the page took about a week. The bigger ongoing issues revolve around site maintenance, monitoring, and expansion.

For example, Curtis has been experimenting with advertising its Web site on Facebook. “You can have your ads appear on the pages of your target audience and drive them to your site,” Stimmel says. “We tried it for a week and found that it really works.”

In addition, the firm is involved in developing an expanded online social networking strategy that will be introduced over the next year, she says.

But what about time?

This all seems like a lot of time and effort. Do lawyers, law firms, and bars have the time to spend? “Most of the time I spend on social networking replaces other (activities),” says Boston lawyer Douglas Cornelius, who blogs on such topics and takes part in related forums. “But frankly, it does not take much time. These tools are all incredibly easy to use.”

SBOT’s Sirman understands that lawyers might be reluctant. “Attorneys don’t have lots of time to do this stuff,” he says. “But my feeling is that the attorneys who make a little time to build connections on social networking sites will reap the benefits.”

Sashin agrees. “People make time for the things they want to do,” she says. “The lawyers I see on Facebook are busy people at major law firms and corporations.”

But how will online social networking affect voluntary bar associations? One young attorney was quoted as saying she was not going to join a bar association because she felt she got the same benefits through social networking.

“There could be a threat to bar associations,” Cornelius says. “(But) I find that online networking greatly enhances face-to-face networking events.”

Lincoln Mead, IT director for the Utah State Bar, which is taking part in a LinkedIn pilot program, says that—as of now—he doesn’t see social network services as a direct competitor because of the face-to-face networking, public service opportunities, and educational programs offered by bar associations. “Having said that, these services are still ‘young’ and have a tremendous potential to link people to services in ways that may rival the relevance of a voluntary bar association,” he says.

Kovac, of the voluntary Virginia bar, also does not see social networking as a threat. “The only real benefits that being a VBA member and a social networking member have in common is the opportunity to interact with people with common interests,” she says. “Being part of our Facebook page does not give any member benefits that being a VBA member gives.”

In addition, the VBA’s Facebook page provides one more opportunity for a lawyer to network. So for bar groups, becoming a part of the online social networking makes sense.

“These are powerful tools for marketing, recruiting, and showing your expertise.” Cornelius says, “Even an old-line publication like Martindale-Hubbell is setting up a social networking site,” he adds, referring to the publisher’s plans to launch an online community in early 2009. The move is in response to a survey that found that 50 percent of attorneys are members of online social networks and more than 40 percent believe that networking has the potential to change the business and practice of law over the next five years.

In a press release about the action, Martindale-Hubbell reported that it has reached a content-sharing agreement with LinkedIn in which Martindale users will be able to use their LinkedIn relationships when conducting searches.

Social networking at work

For some time now, lawyers have been using the Internet to research witnesses and opposing lawyers, and now attorneys are looking at individual MySpace sites, for instance, to help them pick jurors. Some lawyers even tailor their statements to the jury based on what they learn online about jurors’ likes and dislikes, their favorite movies, sports teams, etc.

In terms of the future, look for more tightly focused and service-oriented online communities such as a Casemaker project titled CasemakerX. The Utah State Bar is one of several bars to beta test this combination of social network and legal research.

“Law students will be able to set up a profile, search for friends, start a blog, and create groups in a similar fashion to what you see on other social network sites,” Utah’s Mead says. “What makes this service unique is that the students also have access to the Casemaker legal and medical libraries, a legal dictionary, and thesaurus.”

Lawyers will not be able to create profiles, but they may use the search features of the CasemakerX system to look for candidates for internships, clerkships, and pro bono projects.

The ways that the Web is being used are varied and constantly changing. Bar associations will have to learn how to harness the power of the Web because it makes their jobs easier, Stimmel says. “They create communities that communicate—isn’t that what the associations are supposed to do?”

With all the bar groups starting independent social networking sites or tapping into the 25 million members of LinkedIn and the 100 million members of Facebook, you could say that online social networking is the wave of the future. Right?

“It’s not the wave of the future,” Boston’s Cornelius says. “It’s already here.”